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DDA Special assistance guide

It is great to see many of the UK airports taking a lead in efforts to meet the needs of those with ‘Special Assistance’ needs and on a recent trip to Gatwick Airport, London, it was great to see the efforts and attention the airport are putting into helping special assistance passengers.

Certainly, there are laws in many countries regarding provision for those with assistance needs, such as the Disability Rights Act and the Transport Right for the Disabled. Many airports though still fail to meet many requirements, which are laid down in the legislation and suggestions which are made to improve the experience for special assistance travellers.

Special Assistance journey route
Apart from the legislation, there is another key reason for trying to provide a great experience for these passengers! A study by Small et al (1997) found that there is an extremely high level of loyalty from special assistance passengers when they find an airport or travel provider who meets their needs. Get it right and you have loyal users. Get it wrong and these passengers will be extremely hard to win back.

Special assistance vehicle in airport

Who Are Special Assistance Passengers?

There are no hard and fast rules as to who is considered a special assistance passenger. Generally speaking, those passengers with visibility problems, who need wheelchair provision, those with hearing problems and those with mobility problems (including the elderly) are most often users of this service.

One of the most disabling things about disabilities though is being classified as needing ‘Special Assistance’ and the stigma which this brings. Many users with visibility problems, for example, do not wish to have to be made to sit in an enclosed special assistance area and to feel that they are not independent.

This is certainly a problem in some airports. Gatwick, on the other hand, works closely with disability groups and have trained many staff specifically in working with helping this passenger group. (Make sure, if you are a helper, to download Gatwick’s very handy 19 pages booklet on making the journey easier‘).

What Gatwick Are Doing to Help Passengers

Gatwick have a dedicated team with dedicated assistance desks in a number of locations in the airport. From the various airports I have visited, they seem to be doing at least as much as I have seen at any airport and, just by walking around the airport, you can get a sense of the efforts certainly being made.

special assistance chairs at gates

  • Training – Emphasis at Gatwick is put on taking the lead from the passenger or carer involved, i.e. to allow the passenger to take the lead in deciding what level of care is needed.
  • Making contact with the Special assistance team – The main special assistance areas have at least one receptionist manning the reception desk. Inform the receptionists/greeter of the service you need. Note that you do NOT have to explain the reason why you need the help, i.e. protecting the dignity of passengers is taken seriously. Do make sure though that you have informed your airline in advance that you will be needing assistance.
  • How does the service work – On arrival at the airport, you can head to either one of the main assistance desks or use one of the special assistance telephones which you will see dotted around the airport. You should book in advance and thus the staff will be expecting you and will have your flight information. You will be guided through check-in and security and, once in the departures area, there is a dedicated special assistance area in the centre of the airside area. There are flight information boards inside this area, so that you can keep a check on your departure gate number. Staff though will have a record of your flight and, as part of the service, are there to help you reach your departure gate. Mobility help is provided such as with the use of wheelchairs and buggy carts.
  • Do I have to use special assistance – You may wish to find your own way around and to choose your own place to relax in the airport. You do not have to be based in a dedicated area.

Departures side assistance section

Dedicated special assistance areas in departures

Online wayfinding and dda courses

Help Points

Help buttons

Special Assistance help buttons are located in a number of spots around the airport and are recognizable with the white on blue background icons, as shown in the image on the left. Press the button beneath the icons and you will be put through directly to the main assistance base. The help point shown on the left is located when you disembark from the shuttle, which takes you between North and South Terminals.

Disabled Parking

Gatwick does have provision for disabled parking with their Blue Badge parking area in both the short stay and long stay car parks. Note though that there is also a special assistance drop off area which you can use. (Learn more here about the disabled parking options).

What if I Am Flying into Gatwick?

If you are flying into Gatwick from another airport, as long as you have made your airline aware of your needs at least 48 hours beforehand (some airlines ask for 72 hours warning), then Gatwick will normally have a wheelchair or mobility vehicle available for you.

You might also want to check this document from Gatwick Airport. This excellent document provides detailed information on the walking times and distances between each part of the airport. One of the problems that can sometimes occur is that an elderly passenger may wish to walk but then finds that the route is much further than they anticipated and need assistance.

Paul’s Thoughts

Airports are massively complex locations and trying to cater for 40 million plus passengers a year is difficult. Regulations in the UK dictate that airports must make an effort to help all users have an equal right to travel, such as through the Disability Right Act. Gatwick as an airport seems to be taking the rights of their passengers very seriously and have made huge strides to cater for all user types. Overall, the efforts and services they are now providing I find are extremely impressive.

Route distances

Route distances within the airport are detailed if you wish to study this ahead of your trip



Wheelchairs are located in a number of locations around the airport and are normally ready for passengers arriving on flights into Gatwick.

Gatwick Special Assistance Contacts and Further Information

If you are travelling through Gatwick, the following information might be very useful for you:

  • DO make sure to remember that you need to contact the airport 72 hours before your flight to make it clear that you will need special assistance help.
  • You can learn more about the help the airport provide by calling +44 (0)844 892 0322 and then choosing option 2.
  • Guide dogs are allowed in the airport.

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Dr Paul Symonds has a PhD in Wayfinding from Cardiff Metropolitan University in the UK. Paul works with the signage industry, airports and other locations providing wayfinding audits, consultancy and training.